Craftsman sets the tone in revival of village tradition

Updated: Jun 13, 2019 By Li Yang in Beijing and Sun Ruisheng in Taiyuan (China Daily) Print

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Yan Gaihao works on a gong at his workshop in Xinancheng village, Zichang county, Shanxi province. [Photo by Liu Feng for China Daily]

Inheritor modernizes process of making percussion instruments to attract more young people to the centuries-old trade

During the early Tang Dynasty (618-907), Zichang county in northern China's Shanxi province was well-known as a manufacturing center for brass percussion instruments.

There were many temples in the region at the time, and religious activities created a big demand for the instruments. The manufacturers in Zichang prospered, and its brass instruments were later widely used in operas nationwide, according to Li Siling, a researcher of intangible cultural heritage at the county's cultural center.

Xinancheng village is one of the few in Zichang to have inherited a reputation for craftsmanship in the making of percussion instruments, and 59-year-old Yan Gaihao, who has been making gongs and cymbals for more than four decades, plays a key role in maintaining Zichang's place as the preeminent manufacturing center for percussion instruments in China.

Yan's hands are rough and covered with calluses, an indication of the hard work involved in the trade. That, and better paid jobs in cities, have lured many young people away from inheriting the craft.

Born into a family that has made brass instruments for generations, Yan started learning the craft from his uncle at the age of 18.

The manufacturing of the instruments is complicated. First, the raw materials must be bronze and tin of high purity, which are melted at high temperatures and mixed together according to fixed ratios, which vary for different instruments. Then, the alloy is made into the original forms of the instruments through hot and cold forging. Lastly, it takes careful hammering and polishing to complete the instruments.

"Every strike of the hammer - which happens thousands of times - counts, especially when the tuning of the instruments has to be set at the later stage," Yan said. "It is crucial for the tone color and quality of the instruments.

"As the saying goes, 'It takes thousands of hits to make a gong, but one hit to set the tone.'"

Yan only needs a small hammer to turn a distorted or mute gong into a sonorous one. "It is definitely more than just a hammer. Good hearing and an accurate combination of hammering and judgment are crucial," said Li Yanfeng, an apprentice at Yan's workshop. "It takes decades of experience to develop Yan's ability to 'tame' alloy into clear and melodious instruments."

Different customers have different requirements for the tone colors of the instruments, which means those making them must be familiar with the characteristics of different local opera tunes, and use different hammering techniques to translate the small differences in their requirements into finished instruments.

Li Yanfeng said that part of the work cannot be standardized, as it takes years of experience to feel and master the skills.

After the traditional instrument-making process and Yan's skills were recognized as national intangible cultural heritage in 2009, Yan was appointed by local authorities to pass his techniques down to future generations.

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